It had all the trappings of a Maryland commencement: diplomas, “Pomp and Circumstance,” red caps and gowns, high fives from Testudo. But these proud graduates are just learning to write their first names.

Sixteen preschoolers celebrated their graduation on Friday from the Language-Learning Early-Advantage Program (LEAP) with parents, teachers and faculty and staff from the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences (HESP).

LEAP helps young children who demonstrate speech or language delays to interact, read and speak with greater confidence and ease. They learn alongside HESP students pursuing master’s degrees in speech-language pathology. This hands-on training is closely supervised by experienced speech-language pathologists and faculty members in HESP.

LEAPsters learn through games, reading, interacting with teachers and peers, and play, easing the transition into mainstream kindergarten. Jenny Nader, mother of graduate Samuel Nader, said the experience has been transformational for him.

“He’s grown tremendously. He’s made friends and loves working with the staff,” Nader said. “He jumps for joy when I wake him up and tell him it’s time to go to school.”

Hundreds of other children and families have also benefitted from the program, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Throughout the year, LEAP Director José Ortiz invites UMD student-athletes to visit LEAP and volunteer as guest readers.

“Being kind, sharing and having fun are all things you will carry with you until you’re old,” sophomore Julia Reicin, a member of the cross-country team, told the graduates during Friday’s ceremony.

Adam Ratner, a LEAP alumnus from one of the first cohorts, recalled his shyness and difficulty reading—especially “r” sounds.

“Reading the word ‘porridge’—it was my arch-nemesis,” he said, adding that spending time with friends and teachers at LEAP helped him tremendously. Today, he’s a marine biologist working with the Marine Mammal Center in California. He explained to the crowd that not only does he speak and communicate with his colleagues, but with sea lions and other animals as well.

Ratner is the son of Professor Nan Bernstein Ratner, who founded the program after realizing that her then-young son, who had speech and language delays benefitted from interacting with other late-talking peers.

“I hoped but never necessarily thought when we started LEAP that it would last for 25 years,” Ratner said. “Watching so many kids grow and benefit during their time in the program, I can now tell every parent as they start out, ‘I know your child is going to do really well.’”